Peer Support, the largest club on campus, presents itself as a student-led safe space in which all members are welcome to share issues that compromise their personal well-being. However, the club’s policies often run counter to its frequently advertised goal of establishing a supportive and inclusive atmosphere for all members.
Ultimately, Peer Support does a lot of good, helping students develop close friendships with their peers that prepare them for similar relationships later in life. While Peer Support meetings can be enjoyable, one may question certain policies such as “conflicts,” as they can have significant negative consequences on students’ mental health.
What are “Conflicts”?
“Conflicts” are occasions in which one group member feels uncomfortable sharing their personal issues in the presence of another group member due to personal reservations. Group leaders deliberate amongst themselves over which of the two students to “conflict out” of their group. Three aspects of “conflicts” are particularly concerning with respect to the psychological foresight of the Peer Support supervisors.
Conflicting encourages exclusion in an entirely inclusive club
First, if a student is “conflicted” out of every Peer Support group, they would be unable to participate in the program as a whole. According to Harvard University Psychologist Dr. Sharon Levy, one’s behavioral issues in school that may prompt peers to dislike them often stem from familial conflicts at home. Peer Support is designed to provide a safe space for such adolescents to express themselves. Thus, by rejecting the students who need consolation the most, Peer Support blocks a vital source of emotional support and contradicts its own self-declared mission.
It is appalling that Peer Support supervisors, some of whom are licensed psychologists, allow “conflicts” to continue despite the psychological implications they pose. Whether their inactivity surrounding “conflicts” stems from support or indifference, one may be compelled to question their expertise on adolescent psychology and their decisions that ultimately affect students’ susceptibility to mental health disorders.
Peer Support implicitly avoids one’s consent to disclose information
Secondly, Peer Support evades the privacy of the “conflicted” individual by protecting the anonymity of the student raising the conflict. By excluding the “conflicted” individual from discussion of the conflict, Peer Support clearly violates the “conflicted” party’s consent to disclose private information. Through its disregard for the second party’s perception in any given conflict, Peer Support’s management reveals its insensibility to the psychosocial implications of unjustifiably excluding an individual from their group. In a National Institutes of Health study, neuroscientists detected increased activity in the insula, a region of the brain correlated with visceral pain, when adolescents were exposed to social exclusion. By removing members from groups they have grown accustomed to without sufficient explanation, Peer Support leaders effectively increase activity in the students’ insulae, further triggering visceral pain and increasing susceptibility to correlated neurological diseases such as major depressive disorder and social anxiety disorder. The club, shortsightedly using confidentiality to avoid drama, ultimately compromises students’ mental health, a cost far too steep to justify using this method to avoid awkward situations.
Student-led deliberation fosters an unhealthy group environment
Lastly, student group leaders make the final decisions on which individuals to keep in their groups. This policy fosters a sense of superiority among the leaders, which challenges the authenticity of the word “peer” in Peer Support. How can one succeed in establishing an entirely inclusive environment when a small group determines who to exclude? Additionally, since group leaders are also members of the student body, they have implicit biases that favor some students at the expense of others. For example, if a conflict arises between a senior boy and a sophomore girl, the senior boy is likely to remain in the group because group leaders are upperclassmen.
Also, adolescents may experience distress stemming from uncertainty regarding their hierarchical place in the group. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that psychological development in adolescence is characterized by identity and role confusion, a phenomenon centered around an adolescent’s lack of clarity regarding their psychosocial identity and place in society. Adolescents are greatly susceptible to role confusion in Peer Support, as their roles in their respective groups are determined by their relationships with the leaders.
Eliminating the policy resolves its harmful implications
Overall, allowing the leaders of Peer Support groups to decide which members to keep and which members to remove completely contradicts their all-students-included maxim and is heavily susceptible to selection bias among students.
By eliminating the “conflict” system, Peer Support would more closely align with its goal of improving students’ mental health and upholding all members’ perspectives equally.